Sunday, March 29, 2009

A major difference between conservatives and progressives

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One of the linchpins of the Bush presidency, especially during the first term (and well into the second, until he became a major political liability), was the lock-step uncritical reverence – often bordering on cult-like glorification – which the “conservative” movement devoted to the "Commander-in-Chief." An entire creepy cottage industry arose – led not by fringe elements but by right-wing opinion-making leaders – with cringe-inducing products paying homage to Bush as "The First Great Leader of the 21st Century" (John Podhoretz); our "Rebel-in-Chief" (Fred Barnes); "The Right Man" (David Frum); the New Reagan (Jonah Goldberg); "a man of extraordinary vision and brilliance approaching to genius" who is our "Big Brother" (John Hinderaker); and "the triumph of the seemingly average American man," the supremely "responsible" leader who, when there's a fire, will "help direct the rig to the right house and count the kids coming out and say, 'Where's Sally'?" (Peggy Noonan).

Even as Bush implemented one massive expansion of government power after the next -- the very "un-conservative" policies they long claimed to oppose -- there was nothing but (at best) the most token and muted objections from them. The handful of conservatives who did object were cast aside as traitors to the cause, and criticisms of the President became equated with an overt lack of patriotism. Uncritical support for the Leader was the overarching, defining attribute of conservatism, so much so that even Bill Kristol, in The New York Times, acknowledged: "Bush was the movement and the cause."

Whenever I would speak at events over the last couple of years and criticize the Bush administration’s expansions of government power, extreme secrecy and other forms of corruption, one of the most frequent questions I would be asked was whether "the Left" -- meaning liberals and progressives -- would continue to embrace these principles with a Democrat in the White House, or whether they would instead replicate the behavior of the Right and uncritically support whatever the Democratic President decided. Though I could only speculate, I always answered -- because I believed -- that the events of the last eight years had so powerfully demonstrated and ingrained the dangers of uncritical support for political leaders that most liberals would be critical of and oppositional to a Democratic President when that President undertook actions in tension with progressive views.

Two months into Obama’s presidency, one can clearly conclude that this is true. Even though Obama unsurprisingly and understandably remains generally popular with Democrats and liberals alike, there is ample progressive criticism of Obama in a way that is quite healthy and that reflects a meaningful difference between the “conservative movement” and many progressives.

Over the last month, the Obama administration has made numerous decisions in the civil liberties area that are replicas of some of the most controversial and radical actions taken by the Bush administration, and the most vocal critics of those decisions by far were the very same people – ostensibly on "the Left" -- who spent the last several years objecting to the same policies as part of the Bush administration’s radicalism. Identically, many of Obama's most consequential foreign policy decisions -- in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan -- have been criticized by many on the Left. Opposition to Obama’s bank bailout plan is clearly being driven by liberal economists, pundits and bloggers, and much of the criticism over the AIG debacle came from liberals as well. There was pervasive liberal criticism over some of Obama's key appointments, including Tom Daschle, John Brennan and Tim Geithner. That's more independent progressive thinking in two months than the "conservative movement" exhibited with regard to Bush in six years.

It’s certainly true that one has no difficulty finding cult-like liberal veneration for Obama – those who invoke Bible-like "he’s-a-master-of-11-dimensional-chess" clich├ęs to justify whatever he does (the Lord works in mysterious ways but even when we don't understand what He does, we Trust that He is Supremely Good and more Wise than us and knows best); who declare, in Bush-like "with-me-or-against-me" fashion, all critics of Obama to be the Enemy; who pay homage to Kim Jong Il-like imagery such as this and this; who believe that "trust" -- a sentiment appropriate for family and friends but not political leaders -- should be vested in Obama and thus negate any concerns over how he exercises power. Some overly-eager journalists and bloggers are devoted to carrying forth the administration's message (usually delivered anonymously) in exchange for favorable treatment and/our due to a painfully excessive sense of devotion, and there's a Democratic establishment with a built-in machinery to defend Obama no matter what he does.

But outside of those anonymity-granting blogger/journalists and Democratic apparatchiks, these drooling, worshipful, subservient sentiments are largely confined to the fringes. With some exceptions, to find this right-wing-replicating blind loyalty to the Leader, one has to search blog comment sections and obscure diarists. Many -- arguably most -- of the most vocal liberal Bush critics have kept their critical faculties engaged and have been unwilling to sacrifice their political values and principles at the altar of partisan loyalty.

It should be emphasized that mere criticism for its own sake is also not a virtue. Those who reflexively and blindly criticize whatever Obama does (based on the immovable, all-consuming conviction that he is intrinsically Evil) are nothing more than the opposite side of the same mindless coin as those who reflexively and blindly praise whatever Obama does (based on the immovable, all-consuming conviction that he is intrinsically Good). Pre-ordained, overarching judgments of Obama that are detached from his actions and grounded in Manichean caricatures are irrational in equal measure, whether that judgment yields praise or condemnation.

A rational citizen, by definition, praises and supports political leaders only when they do the right thing (regardless of motive), and criticizes and opposes them when they don’t. It's just that simple. Cheerleading for someone because they're on "your team" is appropriate for a sporting event, not for political matters. Political leaders deserve support only to the extent that their actions, on a case-by-case basis, merit that support, and that has largely been the behavior of progressives towards Obama.

Hence: civil libertarian critics of Bush have vehemently criticized the Obama administration for embracing Bush’s secrecy theories, shielding government policies (including torture) from judicial review, denying all rights to Bagram detainees, and retaining some of Bush’s extreme detention powers, but have praised him -- often lavishly -- for restricting FOIA secrecy, banning waterboarding and CIA black sites, disclosing key Bush-era OLC memos, bringing charges against the last "enemy combatant" in America, and guaranteeing International Red Cross access to all detainees. Foreign policy critics have objected to Obama's escalation of our military presence in Afghanistan and drone attacks in Pakistan while praising him for preliminary changes in our tone (if not policy) towards Israel and his diplomatic overtures to Iran. Economic critics have attacked his bank rescue plan as a sleazy give-away to Wall Street and his excessive stimulus compromises, while praising his ambitious domestic budget and his core stimulus approach. In most areas, his record has been mixed, and thus progressive reaction to it has been as well.

Critical analysis is how a political culture and even a political movement remains vibrant and worthwhile, and is the only way political leaders and a political class will remain responsive and accountable. Blind reverence and uncritical loyalty -- the need to see a political leader as one who embodies infallible truth and transformative justice and can deliver some form of personal or emotional elevation -- breeds ossification, intellectual death, and authoritarian corruption. Anyone who doubts that should look at the state of today's conservative movement to see what the fruits are of that cultish mentality.

Many conservatives typically use the excuse that a national crisis (9/11) is what led to such lock-step and uncritical support for the Leader, but many progressives are retaining their critical faculties despite the (at least equally threatening) economic crisis consuming not just America but the world. There are many legitimate criticisms one might make of liberals but, with some exceptions, replicating the Leader worship and blind reverence that dominated the Bush era doesn't appear to be one of them.

UPDATE: I'm well-aware, and explicitly stated, that there were some conservatives who dissented early on from the Bush movement as an assault on their ideological convictions -- I devoted an entire chapter of my first book to those individuals -- but they were a tiny minority (and were cast out of the movement). Even as Bush's popularity collapsed across the spectrum, self-identified "conservatives" continued to support him overwhelmingly and "movement conservatism" devoted itself blindly to Bush. Indeed, even as recently as December (three months ago), by which point the Bush disaster was undeniably apparent to everyone else, self-identified "conservatives" continued overwhelmingly to support their leader.

The point, though, isn't so much the lockstep devotion to Bush among the conservative rank-and-file as it is the blindly uncritical, cult-like glorification of him by the Right's opinion-making leaders and their refusal to criticize what he did -- until they sought cynically to distance themselves from the stench of his failure late in his presidency (and anyone who doubts that should just click on the links in the first paragraph or read this). If one searches for it, one can find that devoted reverence towards Obama among some creepy cultists and overly eager supporters, but that has not been the predominant behavioral trait among progressives.

UPDATE II: Here is about as pure an example of the right-wing-mimicking sickness of claiming that Obama is so much wiser and smarter than everyone else that we should all meekly keep our mouths shut and submit to and cheer for whatever it is he that he decrees -- from Jacob Heilbrunn at The Huffington Post:

The chorus of criticism of President Obama's economic plan has been almost deafening, and it isn't coming from Republicans but Democrats. Sure, the Republicans are engaging in scare tactics about tens of trillions in deficits, but it's the liberal naysayers such as New York Times columnist Paul Krugman who've been the real critics.

They should lay off . . . . Perhaps the most perplexing aspect of the liberal attack on the Obama administration is that it betrays a kind of pathological political death-wish among Democrats. When Ronald Reagan was trying to extricate America from recession in his first term, Republicans weren't denouncing him. Democrats, by contrast, seem to have no compunction about flaying their president a few months into his first term as courting failure. No doubt they depict it as concern for his success. But it remains astonishing that a variety of pundits and lawmakers continue to underestimate Obama, who is, by a wide margin, the most shrewd [sic] and thoughtful president America has had in decades. Will Obama rescue the economy? Yes, he can. But not if the Democrats try to stop him first.

To recap: Republicans never criticized Reagan, and Democrats should copy that sychophantic behavior and loyally get in line behind the great man in the White House. Obama isn't merely our Leader, but he's Our Great and Wise Leader -- the greatest and wisest that "America, by a wide margin, has had in decades," maybe ever -- and what he deserves and is entitled to is meek and uncritical support to ensure that The Team succeeds. Even if you think that what Obama is doing is wrong and counter-productive, you should keep your mouth shut and pretend to agree with him and realize that he is smarter and better than you and therefore probably right, even if you don't see or agree with the rationale behind his actions. Obama works in mysterious ways, yes he does.

Nothing is worse, says Heilbrunn, than Democrats who "seem to have no compunction about flaying their president" -- i.e., criticizing his policies when they think the policies are wrong and bad. What kind of person would think that it's a bad thing for citizens to disagree with and criticize their political leaders? Actually, here's one answer to that question: Bill Kristol said once that all Americans have the solemn obligation to "keep quiet for six or nine months" about the Iraq War to enable The Surge to succeed. It looks like Heilbrunn learned a little too much when writing his book on neoconservatives.

Insurance Industry is Simply a Parasite Feeding on the US Health System

Original Link:

by Dave Lindorff

As the country contemplates a major reform and restructuring of the way we run our national health care system (if it can even be called that), it needs to be pointed out that the mammoth health insurance industry is nothing but a parasite on that system.

Health insurance companies add zero value to the delivery of health care. Indeed, they are a significant cost factor that sucks up, according to some estimates such as one by the organization Physicians for a National Health Program, as much as 31 percent of every dollar spent on medical services (a percentage that has been rising steadily year after year).

Insurance companies are damaging in more ways than simply cost, though.

They also actively interfere in the delivery of quality medical care, as anyone who has had to battle with some “nurse” on the phone at an insurance company to get required pre-authorization for needed procedure can attest. Just recently, the editor of a local weekly alternative paper in Philadelphia, Brian Hinkey, the victim of a near fatal hit-and-run accident last year who spent several days in a coma, and has been working hard to regain the use of all his limbs and faculties, reported in an opinion piece in the Philadelphia Inquirer on how his insurer after a few successful weeks of in-hospital rehab, denied him coverage for six critical weeks for out-patient rehab services, though every specialist on head injuries knows that early, consistent therapy is crucial to recovery of lost brain function.

This kind of human abuse is standard operating procedure for companies whose bottom lines are fattened the more services they can deny to insured clients. My own father, once doomed by a metastasized cancer following prostate surgery, was saved by a procedure offered by a physician in Atlanta that his Blue Cross plan in Connecticut refused to pay for. He had to finance the expensive treatment himself.

Now these medical system parasites are suddenly running scared, because it is clear that if everyone in America is to be guaranteed health insurance coverage—a promised goal of the new administration of President Barack Obama, and, according to polls, the desire of a large majority of the American people—they are going to stand exposed as a costly impediment to achieving that goal.

Insurance companies have managed to stay profitable and at least somewhat affordable to the private employers and workers who, together, have to pay for them, by denying care not just to policy holders, who are denied certain tests and treatments but especially to those who have known ailments, who are simply denied coverage altogether.

For decades, people with “pre-existing conditions” have been either barred from coverage, or have had to sign waivers that excluded them from getting coverage for treatment of those pre-existing conditions. In the worst case, which is all too common, people have ended up dying because they couldn’t get treatment for common and easily treated ailments like high blood pressure or diabetes.

Now we hear that two big insurance trade groups, the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association and America’s Health Insurance Plans, have offered to "phase out the practice of varying premiums based on health status in the individual market" in the event that all Americans are required to obtain health insurance.

Well sure they’re doing that. If they didn’t, the government would force them to! The insurance industry, in saying that it would not price sick people out of coverage in a nationally-mandated health insurance scheme, is merely recognizing the political firestorm that would arise if it were not to do that, and were to force the sick and infirm onto some government insurance plan, subsidized by taxpayers, while they just cherry-picked the healthy population, as they’ve been doing now for decades.

The whole point is that if everyone is included in the insurance pool, instead of only the healthy population, then the overall cost of being chronically or critically ill to the individual is spread over the whole of society. Premiums get adjusted accordingly.

Medicare is the model. Here we already have a government plan that covers every single elderly and disabled person.

If we were to simply extend Medicare to cover everyone in America, we would essentially have the Canadian model of health care (which, it should be pointed out, costs half what we pay in America for health care when private insurance and government programs are added together). As with current Medicare, the government would pay for treatment, with private doctors and hospitals providing the care, and with the government negotiating the permissible charges. That, in a nutshell, is what “single-payer” means—the government is the single payer for all health care. It doesn’t mean, as the right-wing critics claim in their scaremongering propaganda, that people would be forced to use certain doctors and certain hospitals. Far from it. That’s what private HMOs do right now.

Medicare is efficient (only 3.6% of Medicare’s budget goes to administrative costs, compared to 31% for health care delivered through private insurance plans), its clients like it, and doctors and hospitals accept it.

We should not be tricked by this seeming sudden appearance of decency on the part of these corporate parasites. There is simply no valid reason for preserving the private insurance industry’s role in any health care reform plan that is aimed at giving everyone access to health care in America. The Obama administration needs to jettison its “free market” fetish when it comes to health care. The financing of health care for all Americans can all be handled much better by the government. Medicare has proven this. Other countries—Britain, Australia, France, Canada, Taiwan and most other modern nations have proven this.

Leave the insurance industry to handle our car insurance and our life insurance. It has no more place in the delivery of health care than do tapeworms in the digestive process of our bowels.

Pete Sessions: House GOP learning from Taliban

Original Link:

By Glenn Thrush

The House GOP was having a great week ... until Pete Sessions, their new fundraising director, told Hotline editors his conference was taking its cues from insurgents — like the Taliban.

We're talking about a major new Democratic talking point here, folks. Major.

"Insurgency, we understand perhaps a little bit more because of the Taliban," Sessions said during a meeting yesterday with Hotline editors. "And that is that they went about systematically understanding how to disrupt and change a person's entire processes. And these Taliban — I'm not trying to say the Republican Party is the Taliban. No, that's not what we're saying. I'm saying an example of how you go about [sic] is to change a person from their messaging to their operations to their frontline message. And we need to understand that insurgency may be required when the other side, the House leadership, does not follow the same commands, which we entered the game with."

DCCC Chairman Chris Van Hollen seized the opportunity, saying he was "shocked" — although he was probably also a wee bit delighted.

“NRCC Chairman Pete Sessions’ remark comparing his own party’s tactics during the economic recovery debate to those of a terrorist group in Afghanistan is truly shocking. While House Republican leaders profess to seek bipartisanship, they are comparing their tactics to the violent tactics used by the Taliban insurgency. NRCC Chairman Sessions should put partisanship aside and join our fight to urgently turn our economy around and get Americans working again.”

The Taliban wing of the GOP comes out of the closet

Original Link:

by: David Newquist

During our current economic collapse, the Republican Party has become more strident as it falls into line in support of corporate fascism. Republican Rep. Pete Sessions of Texas set a tactical agenda when he called for the Republican Party to circumvent the democratic processes and adopt insurgent methods modeled after the Taliban. Many people tout Rush Limbaugh as their putative leader. Limbaugh makes Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seem like a model of democratic good will and rationality. A number of Republican senators have expressed the political doctrine they favor in response to Pres. Obama's measures to prevent bailout money from being used for lavish executive perquisites.

When Ronald Reagan began his efforts to diminish government, he like to use the example of the black woman who drove to the social services office in a Cadillac to pick up her welfare check. And the Republicans have tried to make Tom Daschle's use of privately paid-for car and driver a national disgrace. But to them it is perfectly fine for corporate executives to come and beg for bail-out money needed because of their profligate incompetence and then spend it in garish and criminal displays of luxury and self-indulgence. The Republicans say that taxpayer money used for rebuilding schools and preparing the infrastructure for clean energy is excessive, but when the President limits the use of tax-payer money for the purpose it was appropriated --shoring up a sinking financial system instead of executive luxuries--he is intruding government into places it has no business. It is imposing socialism onto American business.

Sen. John Kyl, R-Arizona, told The Huffington Post, "Because of [the bankers'] excesses, very bad things begin to happen, like the United States government telling a company what it can pay its employees. That's not a good thing in America."

Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Florida, said, "What executives have done is troubling, but it's equally troubling to have government telling shareholders how much they can pay the executives,"

Sen. James Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, said, "as I was listening to [the President] make those statements I thought, is this still America? Do we really tell people how to run [a business], and who to pay and how much to pay?"

What the Senators do not state, or seem to understand, is that the issue is not telling private businesses what it can pay, but what taxpayer money can be used for. Or to insist that the government expects it to be used for the purposes it was dispensed.

The assumption is that the government has an absolute responsibility to dictate how welfare money must be used by the poor, but it has no business telling the privileged class how to use its welfare money.

The current debate in Washington is clarifying he issues. In recent years, conservatives have howled and whine with indignation when it is suggested that they are embracing fascist principles and doctrine. But now they are openly and loudly expressing their political values.

GOP Learning From Taliban Tactics

Original Link:

From a Washington Post article; “Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Tex.) suggested last week that the party is learning from the disruptive tactics of the Taliban”. Sessions made this statement in reference to the GOP’s tactics in defeating the stimulus bill. Rep. Paul D. Ryan said “we’re standing on our core principles”. And Rep. Eric Cantor is quoted as saying “we are standing up on principle and just saying no”. The same article informs us that Rush Limbaugh “has taken on a leadership role in the out-of-power Republican Party”.

My View

You have to ask what the Republicans’ real agenda is; helping the country get out of this mess or using the mess to rebuild their party. I suggest the latter (politics as usual), which is the same thing the Democrats would be doing should the situation be reversed. You also have to ask yourself where was all this “standing up for our core principles” when Bush was on his wild spending spree. The likes of Session and all the others were signing off on that spending spree and waving their flags in the process. They see this as “pay(ing) off politically for those who oppose it (stimulus bill)”. “Paying off politically”; the real reward. And look who their “hero” is; Rush Limbaugh.

We commoners must see and accept the real problem we have in getting the country back on track, which is our politician’s playing politics at the cost of the country and citizens. Sessions’ wording says it all; “disruptive”. What does that mean? “If our party is not in power, let’s use terror tactics against the country & opposition; to hell with being a part of the solution, let’s be a part of the problem”.

The GOP's Anti-Obama Propaganda

Original Link:

by Robert Parry

Today’s Republicans are thumbing through Newt Gingrich’s worn playbook of 1993 looking for tips on how to blunt President Barack Obama’s political momentum and flip it to their advantage. In doing so, they also appear to have dug in to what might be called the secret appendix.

The official history of what happened during Bill Clinton’s difficult first two years – which ended in a sweeping Republican congressional victory in 1994 – focuses on the GOP’s united resistance to his economic plan and Hillary Clinton’s failed health care reform. But there was a darker side to the political damage inflicted on the early Clinton administration.

Republicans and their right-wing allies disseminated what – in a covert operation – would be called “black propaganda.” Some exaggerated minor scandals, like the Travel Office firings and Clinton’s Whitewater real-estate deal, while other key figures on the Right, such as the Rev. Jerry Falwell, spread ugly conspiracy rumors linking Clinton to “mysterious deaths” and cocaine smuggling.

Sometimes, these multiplying “Clinton scandals” built on themselves with the help of their constant repetition in both the right-wing and mainstream news media. For instance, overheated accusations about some personnel changes at the White House Travel Office pushed deputy White House counsel Vincent Foster into a deep depression.

Then, on July 30, 1993, a distraught Foster went to Fort Marcy Park along the Potomac River and shot himself. The Right quickly transformed the tragedy into a new front in the anti-Clinton psychological warfare, with Foster’s death giving rise to a cottage industry for conspiracy theorists and a new way to raise doubts about Clinton.

Talk radio host Rush Limbaugh, among others, popularized the notion that Foster may have been killed elsewhere, with his body then transported to Fort Marcy Park. Repeated official investigations confirmed the obvious facts of Foster’s suicide but could not quell the conspiracy rumors. [For the fullest account of the Foster case, see Dan Moldea’s A Washington Tragedy.]

The “mystery” around Foster’s death also bolstered the “mysterious deaths” list, which mostly contained names of people who had only tangential connections to Clinton. The effectiveness of the list was the sheer volume of the names, creating the illusion that Clinton must be a murderer even though there was no real evidence implicating Clinton in any of the deaths.

As the list was blast-faxed far and wide, one of my right-wing sources called me up about the list and said, “even if only a few of these are real, that’s one helluva story.” I responded that if the President of the United States had murdered just one person that would be “one helluva story,” but that there was no evidence that Clinton was behind any of the deaths.

Other dark Clinton “mysteries” were spread through videos, like “The Clinton Chronicles” that Falwell hawked on his “Old-Time Gospel Hour” television show. Plus, salacious tales about the personal lives of the Clintons were popularized via right-wing magazines, such as The American Spectator, and the rapidly expanding world of right-wing talk radio.

The Right also generated broader conspiracy theories about “black helicopters” threatening patriotic Americans with a United Nations takeover. The paranoia fed the rise of a “militia movement” of angry white men who dressed up in fatigues and went into the woods for paramilitary training.

By fall 1994, Clinton’s stumbling performance in office and the public doubts created by the black propaganda opened the way for a stunning Republican victory. Recognizing the influence of talk radio in spreading the Clinton smears, House Republicans made Rush Limbaugh an honorary member of the GOP caucus.

However, the forces that the anti-Clinton psy-war campaign set in motion had unintended consequences. In the months after the Republicans gained control of Congress, one pro-militia extremist, Timothy McVeigh, took the madness to the next step and blew up the Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, killing 168 people. [See’s “The Clinton Coup d’Etat?”]

Reprising the Smears
Now, 16 years since the start of Clinton’s presidency, the Republicans and their right-wing allies are again on the outside of Washington power and are back studying the lessons of 1993-94. Only a month into Obama’s presidency, there are some striking similarities in the two historical moments.

In both cases, the Democrats inherited recessions and huge budget deficits from Republican presidents named Bush. In both cases, congressional Republicans rallied against the economic package of the new President hoping to strangle the young Democratic administrations in their cradles.

And, as congressional Republicans worked on a more overt political level, their media allies and other operatives were getting busy at subterranean depths, reviving attack lines from the campaigns to sow doubts about the two Democratic presidents – and trying to whip up the right-wing base into a near revolutionary fervor.

So far at least, the Republicans are experiencing less success against Barack Obama than they did against Bill Clinton. According to opinion polls, Obama remains widely popular with an American public that favors his more activist agenda for reviving the American economy and confronting systemic problems like energy, health care and education.

Though Republicans scored points inside the Beltway with their opposition to Obama’s $787 billion stimulus bill – and their complaints that Obama "failed" in his bipartisan outreach to them – the GOP tactics appear to have backfired with the American people.

Gauging public opinion one month into Obama’s presidency, polls found that most Americans faulted the Republicans for rebuffing Obama’s gestures of bipartisanship, and a New York Times/CBS News poll discovered that a majority said Obama “should pursue the priorities he campaigned on ... rather than seek middle ground with Republicans.” [NYT, Feb. 24, 2009]

But the Republicans seem incapable of coming up with any other strategy than to seek Obama’s destruction, much as they torpedoed Clinton. The three moderate Republican senators who supported the stimulus package – Susan Collins, Olympia Snowe and Arlen Specter – were widely denounced by the right-wing media as “traitors.”

Indeed, the Republican Party arguably has become captive to the angry right-wing media that the GOP conservatives did so much to help create in the late 1970s, after the Vietnam War defeat and Richard Nixon’s Watergate debacle.

This Right-Wing Machine proved useful in protecting Ronald Reagan during the Iran-Contra scandal; undermining Clinton in the 1990s; dirtying up Al Gore in 2000; and wrapping George W. Bush in the protective garb of a full-scale cult of personality after 9/11.

But the machine wore down in its defense of Bush’s multitude of disasters and ultimately could not generate enough suspicions about Obama to elect John McCain. Still, it remains a potent force in the country and particularly among the Republican “base.”

It is also a machine that can run only on the high-octane fuel of anger and hate. If it tried to down-shift to a more responsible approach to politics, it would stall out, losing its core audience of angry white men who feel deeply aggrieved by their loss of status.

In turn, Republican leaders can’t disown the right-wing media infrastructure that has advanced their interests for so long. In the first month of Obama’s presidency, the congressional Republicans fell in line behind Rush Limbaugh’s openly declared desire for Obama to fail.

Now, the Republicans may see little choice but to bet on the ability of their Right-Wing Machine to continue spreading doubts and hysteria about Obama.

More books and DVDs can be expected soon, recycling the 2008 campaign’s rumor-mongering on Obama – that he wasn’t born in the United States, that he’s a secret Muslim, that he’s in league with 1960s radical Bill Ayers, etc.

Rumbling Insurrection
Much like the Clinton-era militia movement’s fear of “black helicopters,” there already are rumblings about the need for an armed uprising to thwart Obama’s alleged “communist” agenda.

Ironically, right-wingers who defended George W. Bush when he mounted a radical assault on the Constitution – seeking to establish an imperial presidency while eliminating habeas corpus and other key freedoms – are suddenly seeing threats to the Constitution from Obama.

Fox News, in particular, has been floating the idea of armed rebellion. On Feb. 20 – the one-month anniversary of Obama’s inauguration – Glenn Beck hosted a special program called “War Room” that “war-gamed” various scenarios including the overthrow of an oppressive U.S. government when “bubba” militias rise up and gain the support of the American military.

The segment featured former CIA officer Michael Scheuer, retired U.S. Army Sgt. Major Tim Strong, and Gerald Celente, a prognosticator who began pitching the idea of an armed rebellion on Fox News shortly after Obama’s election last November.

“This is going to be violent,” said Celente, founder of Trends Research Institute. “People can’t afford it [taxes] anymore. The cities are going to look like Dodge City. They’re going to be uncontrollable. You’re going to have gangs in control. Motorcycle marauders. You’re not going to have enough police or federales – just like Mexico – to control the situation.”

Beck envisioned the uprising – theoretically set in 2014 – starting “because people have been so disenfranchised” leading to a “bubba effect” touched off by federal agents from the ATF or FBI arresting some rancher in Texas or Arizona who has taken the law into his own hands in defending his property.

“That’s totally possible,” ex-Sgt. Strong said. “You’ve got people who are going to do the right thing to truly protect the interests of the United States, to include their own. ... Your second and third orders of effect are going to be your bubbas hunkering down and being anti-government.”

Beck, who was a longtime fixture on CNN’s Headline News before moving to Fox, then expanded on the justification for the bubba uprising against a federal government that was “coming in and disenfranchising people over and over and over again – and having the people say please listen to us.”

According to Beck, these oppressed Americans “know the Constitution. They know the writings of the Founders and they feel that the government – or they will in this scenario and I think we’re on this road – the government has betrayed the Constitution. So they will see themselves as people who are standing up for the Constitution.”

Beck then turned to ex-CIA officer Scheuer and asked, “So how do you defuse this, Michael, or how long even do we have before this becomes a crazy real scenario?”

“I don’t think you’d want to defuse it, Glenn,” Scheuer responded. “The Second Amendment is ... at base not about hunting or about a militia, but about resisting tyranny. The Founders were very concerned about allowing individual citizens weaponry to defend themselves as a last resort against a tyrannical government.”

As the discussion edged toward advocacy of violent revolution, Beck sought to reel it back in a bit.

“Don’t get me wrong,” the host said. “I am against the government. And I think they’ve just been horrible. I do think they are betraying the principles of our Founders every day they’re in office. But I have to tell you this scenario scares the living daylights out of me because it is shaking nitroglycerine.”

Beck then got back to the point: “Do the soldiers come in and do they round up people or do they fight with the people for the Constitution? What does the Army, what does the military do?”

Scheuer answered: “I don’t think the military is ever going to shoot on the American people, sir. I think the military – of all people – read the Constitution every year, right through.”

Beck then suggested that Obama’s stimulus package might lead to this back-door federal tyranny.

“We just had in our stimulus package a way for if your governor says no to the money, the legislature can go around the governor and go right to the Feds,” Beck said. “It’s this kind of thing that would make the federal government say, ‘You know what? We can call up the National Guard. We don’t need your governor to do it.’”

Such insurrectionist musings on Fox News are not likely to be taken seriously by most people. Indeed, many Americans may find it amusing that Fox has developed a heartfelt concern about disenfranchising voters after its enthusiastic embrace of Bush's undemocratic "election" in 2000 or that Fox now feels a sudden reverence for the Constitution after eight years of defendin Bush as he trampled it.

But this sort of Fox chatter runs the risk of feeding the well-nursed grievances of angry white “bubbas” and possibly inspiring a new Timothy McVeigh.

More significantly, today’s Republican leaders – finding themselves with little new to offer – appear to have turned to the well-worn pages of this earlier GOP playbook to choose the same game plan that set the nation on a dangerous and destructive course 16 years ago, a course that only now, finally, may be playing out.

Republican Taliban declare jihad on Obama

Original Link:

By Andrew Sullivan

The president wants bipartisanship; the right has promised him all-out war

Goodbye to all that? Washington, it appears, has other ideas. Barack Obama campaigned on a platform of pragmatic liberalism and an end to frothy ideological warfare in Washington. From the beginning of the campaign he went out of his way not to engage in Republican-bashing or even Clinton-bashing. He was intent on bringing reason and open-mindedness to America’s often fraught ideological debates. He was incandescently clear that he rejected the toxic partisan atmosphere that had dominated the Bill Clinton and George W Bush years.

Since November he has largely walked the walk. Yes, there is a down payment on future government spending in the stimulus bill - on healthcare, the environment and education. But given the urgency of the economic downturn and the few tools left to counter it, a little overshooting is not the worst option in the next 18 months. And he did his best to accommodate Republican concerns - adding deeper and wider tax cuts than his own party was comfortable with.

He went to Capitol Hill to talk directly with members of the other party in the more ideological House of Representatives – spending more time with them than even Bush did. He asked three Republicans to be a part of his cabinet, including Robert Gates, Bush’s defence secretary. He went to dinner with key Republican columnists before reaching out to those who had supported him in the election. And this open hand was met with a punch in the face.

From the outset, the Republicans in Washington pored over the bill to find trivial issues to make hay with. They found some small funding for HIV and sexually transmitted diseases prevention; they jumped up and down about renovating the national mall; they went nuts over a proposal - wait for it - to make some government buildings more energy-efficient; they acted as if green research and federal funds for new school building were the equivalent of funding terrorism. And this after eight years in which they managed to turn a surplus into a trillion-dollar deficit and added a cool $32 trillion to the debt the next generation will have to pay for. Every now and again their chutzpah and narcissism take one’s breath away. But it’s all they seem to know.

John McCain gives you the flavour. Fresh from a dinner in his honour hosted by Obama, he abruptly dismissed the stimulus package as the “same old” spending of the distant Democratic past. His closest Republican ally, Senator Lindsey Graham, declared: “This bill stinks.”

Pete Sessions, chairman of the Republican congressional committee, explained that the Republican strategy was going to be modelled on jihadist insurgency. “I’m not joking,” he added. “Insurgency we understand perhaps a little bit more because of the Taliban.”

Rush Limbaugh, the dominant figure among the Republican base, fresh from broadcasting a ditty called Barack, the Magic Negro, declared in the first week of the new Congress that he hoped the new president would fail. The stimulus bill got no Republican votes in the House, and only three Republicans - all from the Obama-voting states of Pennsylvania and Maine - backed him in the Senate. McCain went to the floor of the Senate to growl that three votes did not make the bill bipartisan.

Bitter? At the end of last week we saw just how bitter. One of the Republicans who had agreed to serve in Obama’s cabinet, Senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, abruptly pulled out, after what he described as “fair warning” to the president.

Gregg had been under intense pressure from the Republican base, especially in his home state, for cooperating with the devil. He claimed the reason for his sudden withdrawal was that he couldn’t stomach the stimulus. Yet only a week earlier he had said: “We need a robust [stimulus package]. I think the one that’s pending is in the range we need. I do believe it’s a good idea to do it at two levels, which this bill basically does, which is immediate stimulus and long-term initiatives which actually improve our competitiveness and our productivity.” He then tried to argue that his authority over the 2010 census as commerce secretary had been compromised. But that turned out not to be true, either: it was just that a census that could well add millions of Hispanic voters to the rolls had the Republicans eager to prevent a Republican imprimatur on it.

Gregg was a victim of fast-shifting Republican politics. Reeling from the election, watching a new president coopt some of their number and get alarmingly high approval ratings from the public, members of the opposition party made a decision to become an insurgency.

From the disciplined House vote against any stimulus bill to the Gregg withdrawal, they are busy trying to revive the clear ideological warfare of the 1990s. As they did with Clinton 16 years ago, they are going to war. The context – the worst global downturn in decades - is irrelevant. If you have safe Republican seats in a party dominated intellectually by rigid ideologues, then your path of least resistance is total political warfare. It is certainly easier than forging difficult and messy legislative compromises that might even redound to the president’s advantage if the economy recovers.

It’s not clear, however, that total war on the president is going to be a better way forward. Before the latest twist, a Gallup poll found that Obama’s handling of the stimulus package had almost twice the public support of the Republicans’. In a period of acute economic anxiety, Americans outside the Republican base may not be so thrilled to find a replay of the 1990s. Obama won in part because he seemed not part of that drama.

The Democrats and the liberal base have responded to all this with a mixture of cynicism and their own partisanship. They rolled their eyes at Obama’s outreach to Republicans; they hated the inclusion of the other party in the cabinet and had to swallow hard not to complain about the postpartisan rhetoric. Their cynicism is well earned. But my bet is that Obama also understands that this is, in the end, the sweet spot for him. He has successfully branded himself by a series of conciliatory gestures as the man eager to reach out. If this is spurned, he can repeat the gesture until the public finds his opponents seriously off-key.

Ask yourself this question: who, in the end, won the partisan warfare of the 1990s - Clinton or the Republicans? In 1993 the Republicans thought they had dispatched Clinton for good; he won re-election hands down three years later and left office, even after Monica Lewinsky, with high ratings. Obama may not believe that history repeats itself. But he’s surely aware that it often rhymes.

The GOP's Jihad on Obama

Original Link:

By Robert Parry

Only a few weeks into Barack Obama’s presidency, a threatening political and media dynamic has rushed to the fore cutting short a very brief honeymoon.

The Republicans and their right-wing media allies are doing whatever they can to strangle the Obama phenomenon in its cradle; the mainstream media pundits are stressing the negative so they don’t get called “in the tank for Obama”; and the Democrats are shying away from holding the Bush-Cheney administration accountable for its crimes.

None of these developments is particularly surprising. Indeed, they track closely to the political-media pattern that took shape the last time a young Democrat won the White House, when Bill Clinton became President in 1993.

Then, the dispirited Republicans got a lift from the loud voice of a younger Rush Limbaugh who used his popular three-hour radio show to pillory Bill and Hillary Clinton. That, in turn, encouraged the congressional Republicans to vote as a bloc against President Clinton’s budget and economic plan.

Mainstream journalists also used the early Clinton years to disprove the Right’s old canard about the “liberal press.” As one senior news executive told me, “we’re going to show that we can be tougher on a Democrat than any Republican.”

And the Democrats of 1993 also didn’t want to investigate abuses by the Republicans who had just lost power. Despite evidence that the Reagan-Bush-41 administrations had obstructed investigations into Iran-Contra, Iraqgate and other national security scandals, Clinton and Democratic congressional leaders feared partisan warfare if those cases were pursued.

Everyone in that 1993 mix seemed to be operating out of a logical self-interest – the Republicans viewed Clinton as an interloper at their White House; the right-wing media desired larger market share and greater political influence; the mainstream media wanted to shake off the “liberal” tag; and the Democrats hoped to focus on the nation’s deepening economic and social needs rather than on complex historical disputes.

However, the result for the country from that intersection of self-interests proved disastrous.

The Republican determination to destroy Clinton infected the political system with an ugly virus of hyper-partisanship; the right-wing media ramped up its hate talk; mainstream journalism lost its way, wandering into a strange landscape of garish sensationalism and shallow news reporting; and the Democrats failed to counteract the threat posed by the neoconservatives who surfaced during the national security scandals of the Reagan-Bush-41 years.

In short, the dynamic that took shape in 1993-94 carried the United States into the catastrophic presidency of George W. Bush just eight years later. [For details on how this happened, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]

Little Change

Now, at the other end of the Bush-43 experience, what may be most unsettling is that so little has changed, so few lessons have been learned.

Even some of the key players are the same, with Rush Limbaugh hoping to reprise his role as the bombastic voice that lifts the Republicans out of their post-election funk. And the new GOP players in Congress seem to be following the hand-me-down playbook from that earlier era.

So, House Republicans hailed their unanimous bloc vote against President Obama’s $819 billion stimulus package as their first substantive step back. That was followed by key Republicans – Mitch McConnell, John McCain and Lindsey Graham – refusing to join in any serious negotiations with Democrats in the Senate.

With the Republican Senate leaders vowing to filibuster the stimulus bill – thus forcing the Democrats to round up 60 votes – the Republicans were almost gleeful in their insurrection. The Washington Post quoted key Republicans expressing this exhilaration in a front-page story entitled “GOP Sees Positives in Negative Stand.”

"We're so far ahead of where we thought we'd be at this time," said Rep. Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, a backbencher eager to take a leadership role. "It's not a sign that we're back to where we need to be, but it's a sign that we're beginning to find our voice.”

"What transpired,” said Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the second-ranking House Republican, ”and will give us a shot in the arm going forward is that we are standing up on principle and just saying no." [Washington Post, Feb. 9, 2009]

One excited Republican congressman – Pete Sessions of Texas – went even further, comparing the GOP insurrectionist tactics to those of the Taliban, the radical Islamic group that is battling U.S. forces in Afghanistan and has been allied with Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda terrorist group.

“Insurgency, we understand perhaps a little bit more because of the Taliban,” Sessions said during a meeting with editors of the National Journal’s Hotline. “And that is that they went about systematically understanding how to disrupt and change a person’s entire processes.”

Sessions caught himself slightly, adding:

“I’m not trying to say the Republican Party is the Taliban. No, that’s not what we’re saying. I’m saying [that] we need to understand that insurgency may be required when the other side, the House leadership, does not follow the same commands, which we entered the game with.”

Tight Vote

In the Senate, only three Republicans – Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins and Arlen Specter – crossed the aisle to support a compromise stimulus bill that gained their support by increasing the proportion of tax cuts and by reducing spending on schools and aid to hard-pressed state governments.

Their votes became crucial for the bill to gain a 60-vote super-majority to cut off debate. After clearing the Senate, 61-37, on Tuesday, the stimulus bill goes to a conference with the House to iron out differences.

Besides the reemerging behavioral patterns of the Republicans, many Democrats also are acting like it’s 1993 all over again. Despite blunt admissions by President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney that they ordered waterboarding and other brutal interrogation techniques, the Democrats have shied away from any legal confrontation over whether to hold Bush and Cheney accountable for criminal violations.

Instead, there’s been talk about, maybe, a "truth and reconciliation commission" that won’t seek to embarrass anyone and – through grants of immunity – may make any criminal prosecutions impossible. [See’s “Leahy Calls for Truth Commission.”]

Another reflection from the historical mirror of 1993 is the asymmetry of media power. Then, like now, there was a scarcity of well-organized independent or progressive media, only a handful of under-funded magazines and some small FM radio stations up against a fast-growing right-wing media machine.

Over the past 16 years, independent and progressive outlets have gained a toehold in the national debate – mostly through the Internet and a few cable TV shows – but the balance remains heavily tilted toward the right-wing side, which invests vastly more money in virtually every media sector, from books, magazines and newspapers to radio, TV and the Internet.

This imbalance enabled the Republicans to throw the Obama administration onto the defensive by cherry-picking a few questionable items in the stimulus bill and making them the center of the national debate for several days. The independent/progressive media side proved woefully inadequate in countering that initial thrust.

So far, however, the key difference-maker in the economic debate has been the President himself. Despite all the TV jibber-jabber about Obama’s stumbles, he demonstrated his ability to reach past the Washington chatter and connect with an American public that, according to polls, wishes him well and desperately wants him to succeed.

Obama’s town-hall meetings in the hard-hit communities of Elkhart, Indiana, on Monday and Fort Myers, Florida, on Tuesday – as well as his strong performance in a televised news conference on Monday night – left millions of Americans delighted to have a President who could both speak in paragraphs and cite down-home examples of how his stimulus package would help common folk.

People in the audiences nodded at his explanations about money to winterize homes or to modernize schools or to build a first-class infrastructure. A refrain also kept popping up in questions, references to “for the first time in eight years,” an implicit contrast to Bush’s inarticulate oratory.

Obama’s speaking skill and personal charm may go a long way toward blunting Republican hopes for a repeat of the nasty partisan fights of 1993-94 – which ended up with the GOP winning both chambers of Congress, Rush Limbaugh becoming an honorary member of the new House majority, and House Speaker Newt Gingrich launching his “Republican Revolution.”

But except for Obama’s prodigious abilities -- and an American public that may have lost its patience for some of the Washington gamesmanship -- there are eerie parallels to the start of the last Democratic presidency 16 years ago.

Now That The GOP Is Modeled On The Taliban

Original Link:

By Spencer Ackerman

I’m way late to this party — stupid Panetta hearing! — but judging from this interview with Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas), the GOP has apparently decided to model itself on the, uh … well …

“Insurgency, we understand perhaps a little bit more because of the Taliban,” Sessions said during a meeting yesterday with Hotline editors. “And that is that they went about systematically understanding how to disrupt and change a person’s entire processes. And these Taliban — I’m not trying to say the Republican Party is the Taliban. No, that’s not what we’re saying. I’m saying an example of how you go about [sic] is to change a person from their messaging to their operations to their frontline message. And we need to understand that insurgency may be required when the other side, the House leadership, does not follow the same commands, which we entered the game with.”

You know, in the past, when I compared President Obama’s governing style to a counterinsurgency campaign, I wondered if I was going too far. But if this is how Sessions wants it, then clearly it follows that Obama should follow solid GOP advice for how to deal with the Taliban.

Tomorrow, Pete Sessions and his colleagues should find themselves bound and goggled in the belly of a C-130 and taken to the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, where they will enjoy an hour of exercise a week. Attorney General Eric Holder and the rest of the Justice Department should file papers blocking the access of the congressional Republicans to legal representation or meaningful due process, preferring instead to create an ad hoc system for determining the degree to which the GOP poses a threat to President Obama and releasing congresspeople accordingly. And, really, what’s the alternative? The American people decisively proved in November that they’re not willing to house GOP congresspeople in their districts.

Now, this might not be a really American way of doing things — I’m in favor of trying the House GOP in civilian courts with full due process rights and Goddamn the fearmongers who say we’re risking our security by doing so — but, you know, they’d at least get a meal of orange chicken and other delicacies. And indefinite detention without charge is pretty bad, but it’s not, like, a top marginal tax rate of 40 percent or anything, which is how you’d know if this country had descended into tyranny.

The Taliban GOP

Original Link:

Of the 219 Republicans in Congress, it now appears only three will support the stimulus bill—the narrow wedge required to squeeze out a super majority of 60 votes in the Senate. The price of enlisting three Republican defectors—and holding some of the so-called “moderate” Democrats who threatened to bolt—is a rewrite of the bill that cuts aid for education and for budget-strapped state governments.

This could mean mass lay-offs, slashed services, or increased state and local taxes—all exactly the wrong response to a deflationary recession. Understandably, commentators like Paul Krugman object that the package, which was already fifty percent short of the amount needed to counter falling demand, is now “significantly smaller and even more focused on [ineffective] tax cuts.”

Krugman may be right on the merits—after all, he’s the one with a Nobel Prize in economics—but he’s wrong on the political realities. Perhaps the stimulus should be fifty percent bigger, but what’s most remarkable here is that a new President is on course to pass the biggest single piece of legislation in American history—in his first weeks in office. More negotiation may restore some of the Senate cuts; but adamantly insisting on the best bill would almost certainly result in no bill, or at least a long delay. In the Obama phrase that agitated conservatives, such a deadlock would be “catastrophic” for the economy.

The issue now seems settled. The real question is where we go from here.

First, while the President can and should continue reaching out, he can expect to find a clenched fist on the other side of the aisle. Americans will credit and reward his attempt to transcend the old divides, but we have just seen the short life and early demise of a bipartisan era. Republican Pete Sessions of Texas has cited the Taliban as a “model” for his party’s conduct in Congress. The Republican purpose is clearly to destroy the Obama Presidency, to frustrate economic recovery and then blame the Democrats—and so recapture the Congress and the White House on the backs of a broken middle class.

This appears to be an almost universal Republican resolve. John McCain, feted by Obama at a pre-Inaugural dinner, has repaid the gesture with sour grapes. Someone who knows him well reports that he’s consumed with bitterness toward an “unfair” press, as well as toward his successful rival. He can forgive his North Vietnamese captors, but apparently not North American voters.

“Generational theft,” McCain calls the stimulus bill. But how do you raise the next generation if you don’t have a job? Alabama Senator Richard Shelby, for whom no partisan howl is too hackneyed, calls it, “the socialist way.” And Minority Leader Mitch McConnell serves up that desiccated and thoroughly discredited chestnut: “the New Deal didn’t work.”

Facts don’t matter to the GOP anymore. Nor, incredibly, does the opinion of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is urging swift passage of the stimulus. The pro-business party is willing to wreck business itself if it takes a Democratic president down with it. The Republicans’ counterfeit populism is laid bare by their objections to limits on executive compensation. Their attitude seems to be: sky high bonuses yes, solvent banks no. (Never mind who will be around to pay the bonuses.)

The financial rescue, like the stimulus, will survive the partisan carpet bombing—because it has to. But the rise of the Taliban Republicans raises a warning.

There is discussion around Washington about moving next to “reform” Social Security and Medicare. Mitch McConnell says he’d welcome that. It’s the political equivalent of the spider welcoming the fly. True to form, the Republicans would insist on private accounts and would resist raising taxes on the well off.

Entitlement reform is a Beltway holy grail. But when Ronald Reagan ventured to touch Social Security in his first year, the party was trounced at the polls the next, even though he’d been assured by his advisors the proposal would pass with few objections. They were way off the mark. It was only in 1983 that Reagan succeeded, based on the work of the bipartisan Greenspan Commission to which both parties signed up in advance. And yes, the bill did include a tax increase.

History and the character of today’s Republicans both suggest that this President, too, would be wiser to wait for a Commission of his own—and until 2011. There’s no reason to trust those who have just verified their contempt for bipartisanship. And there’s another reason to wait: To move on entitlements now would mean postponing or downgrading healthcare as a priority. The danger is not just a repeat of the Clinton experience, where dithering led to defeat; the reality is that you can’t fix Medicare unless you fix the healthcare system overall.

Finally, fixing healthcare is also essential to the economy because health costs are strangling business and devastating family budgets. That’s why there’s now widespread support in the business community for national health reform. If the Republicans block it, the President and the Democrats would have a powerful two-part message in the 2010 campaign: (1) they pushed the recovery plan through against all-out Republican opposition; and (2) they’re fighting now to provide access to healthcare for all Americans at lower costs. The Republicans would be left to fall back on their predictable subterfuge—another tax break for the wealthy while insurance premiums and co-pays go through the roof. That’s an election I’d like to see, and I don’t think Frum would like the outcome.

In the closing weeks of the presidential contest, the GOP harped on the prediction that President Obama would be tested in his first weeks in office. Who knew the test would come not from the Taliban in Afghanistan, but from the Taliban in Washington? President Obama is about to pass that test. The experience will arm him for his next engagement with the Taliban Republicans.

- ROBERT M. SHRUM has been a senior adviser to the Gore 2000 presidential campaign, the campaign of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, and the British Labour Party. In addition to being the chief strategist for the 2004 Kerry-Edwards campaign, Shrum has advised thirty winning U.S. Senate campaigns; eight winning campaigns for governor; mayors of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, and other major cities; and the Democratic Leader of the U.S. House of Representatives. Shrum's writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Times , The New York Times , The New Republic , Slate , and other publications. The author of No Excuses: Concessions of a Serial Campaigner (Simon and Schuster), he is currently a Senior Fellow at New York University's Wagner School of Public Service.

A Republican jihad?

Original Link:

by Eugene Kiely

Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Tex., apparently thinks House Republicans can learn something from the Taliban.

In an interview Wednesday with Hotline editors, the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee explained how the Republicans need to force House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to work with them and seriously consider their proposals. How?

The Hotline quotes Sessions as saying: "Insurgency, we understand perhaps a little bit more because of the Taliban. And that is that they went about systematically understanding how to disrupt and change a person's entire processes. And these Taliban -- I'm not trying to say the Republican Party is the Taliban. No, that's not what we're saying. I'm saying an example of how you go about [sic] is to change a person from their messaging to their operations to their frontline message. And we need to understand that insurgency may be required when the other side, the House leadership, does not follow the same commands, which we entered the game with."

House Republicans promise Taliban insurgent tactics, blame Pelosi

Original Link:

Editors at the Hotline, an insider political newsletter published by the National Journal, were pressing the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee on how best to position the GOP for the 2010 elections. The choices: Cooperate with popular President Obama or shun his policies, as they did in unison in rejecting Obama's mega-billion-dollar stimulus plan.

That's when Texas Rep. Pete Sessions compared House Republicans to the Taliban, the fundamentalist Muslim terrorist group that has targeted U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Sessions' staff insists he wasn't lauding the Taliban's goals, only their tactics. See what you think:

Insurgency we understand perhaps a little bit more because of the Taliban. And that is that they went about systematically understanding how to disrupt and change a person's entire processes. And these Taliban -- I'm not trying to say the Republican Party is the Taliban -- no, that's not what we're saying. I'm saying an example of how you go about is to change a person from their messaging to their operations to their front line message. And we need to understand that insurgency may be required when the other side, the House leadership, does not follow the same commands, which we entered the game with.

Criticizing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) for forcing the stimulus package to the floor without committee hearings or any input from the GOP, the Dallas congressman said her action drew a line in the sand and that Republicans were picking up the gauntlet to become the party of loyal opposition.

I think insurgency is a mindset and an attitude that we're going to have to search for and find ways to get our message out and to be prepared to see things for what they are, rather than trying to do something about them, I think what's happened is that the line was drawn in the sand.... We either work together, or we're going to find a way to get our message out.

As MSNBC's First Read put it, at least he didn't use a Nazi metaphor.

The Republican-Taliban Party Is Emboldened

Original Link:

by BarbinMD

Earlier this week we learned that the Republican Party has embraced the tactics of the Taliban, and today the insurgents have adopted another word associated with terrorists: they are "emboldened." Why? Because Judd Gregg changed his mind about heading the Commerce Department.

Apparently, having watched control of the House, the Senate, and the White House slip through their fingers, Republicans are reduced to scraping the bottom of the barrel to find a hero, and Judd Gregg fits the bill perfectly.

But the New Hampshire senator's surprise decision to remove himself from consideration as President Barack Obama’s Commerce secretary Thursday has provided the GOP with a new rallying cry, and a new hero against a foe who just a few weeks ago seemed almost unassailable. [...]

By citing reservations about the economic recovery package, Gregg reinforced widespread GOP criticism about wasteful spending that has less to do with reviving the economy than rewarding Democratic constituencies. And by noting his differing view on the census, Gregg breathed life into Republican charges of a White House power grab over a critical Commerce Department function.

It's hard to say which is more ridiculous ... that Republicans see this as a "rallying cry," or that Politico decided to publish this drivel.

With support for the stimulus package at 59%, reinforcing the "widespread GOP criticism," only serves to reinforce how out of touch the Republican Party is with the American people. And those reservations that Gregg cited? They would be a lot more credible had he not recently said of the stimulus:

We need a robust one. I think the one that's pending is in the range we need. I do believe it's a good idea to do it at two levels, which this bill basically does, which is immediate stimulus and long-term initiatives which actually improve our competitiveness and our productivity.

And as for breathing new life into the census argument, stop ten people on the street and ask them where the census is on their list of priorities. That ranks right up there with "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice," as a rallying cry.

If the Republican Party wants to slap lipstick on this pig, I say, bring it on. Assuming, that is, that the Democratic Party gets out in front of this.

GOP Rep: We Might Need A Taliban-Like "Insurgency"

Original Link:

In an interview with National Journal's Hotline, Republican Rep. Pete Sessions of Texas suggested his party could follow the model of the Taliban in its legislative battles.

"Insurgency, we understand perhaps a little bit more because of the Taliban," Sessions said. "And that is that they went about systematically understanding how to disrupt and change a person's entire processes. And these Taliban -- I'm not trying to say the Republican Party is the Taliban. No, that's not what we're saying. I'm saying an example of how you go about [sic] is to change a person from their messaging to their operations to their frontline message. And we need to understand that insurgency may be required when the other side, the House leadership, does not follow the same commands, which we entered the game with."

Sessions said the "Taliban" approach was a reaction to a lack of bipartisan outreach from House Democrats.

When pressed to clarify, Sessions said he was not comparing the House Republican caucus to the Taliban, the Muslim fundamentalist group.

"I simply said one can see that there's a model out there for insurgency," Sessions said before being interrupted by an aide. The staffer said Sessions was trying to convey that the Republicans need to start thinking about how to act strategically from their perch in the minority.

MSNBC suggests that Sessions could have chosen a better historical reference. "Wow, we can think of plenty of other examples of insurgencies (American Revolution, Indian resistance to Great Britain), but the Taliban?"

Democratic Speaker Of The House Nancy Pelosi has yet to formulate a counterinsurgency strategy to deal with this rising threat.

Geithner's Plan: Like an Oil Spill

Original Link:

by Laura Flanders

Twenty years ago this week, the Exxon Valdez ran aground, spilling ten millions gallons of filthy oil over 10,000 square miles of Prince William Sound. The Exxon corporation spent the next two decades fighting paying punitive damages to the victims. Announced, by coincidence, on the anniversary of that disaster, the Obama administration bank rescue plan is about as comforting as Exxon's clean up.

The economy's drowning in bad assets; trillions of dollars worth. The Treasury proposes renaming that bad stuff "legacy assets" and hopes to drive up the price by paying private investors to buy them. Go ahead and buy -- the Treasury says -- the taxpayer will take the hit if those toxic assets turn out to be, well, toxic.

Like Exxon, which has gone in for a major publicity make-over, pushing renewable energy in advertising even as it funds global warming denial, Geithner's hoping to persuade investors to engage in a whole new round of protected gambling, the very phenomenon that got us into this mess in the first place. Those "complex derivatives" aren't bad, just undervalued, he claims, victims of public panic. Treasury's willing to push a few cheap hits in the hope that a little free dope will get the hedge funders addicted again.

There's just one catch: those derivatives are bad: bad bets upon bad bets, based on cost-free betting. Traders gambled, reaped the profits in transaction fees and walked away. Kind of like Exxon: profiteering off the good days and reaping the private gain from public resources, and throwing the cost of environmental clean up back onto the taxpaying public.

The problem is with the commanders, many of those who drove us aground, are still sitting pretty. As Frank Rich and others have reported, Larry Summers can't admit fault: he helped torpedo the regulation of derivatives while he was in the Clinton administration.

Learn from Alaska. Years after the Exxon Valdez belched guck all over the coast, ruining a fishing industry and bankcrupting a people, the financial industry's flooded our economy with garbage and we're letting the ship's captains control the clean up.

Ask the Alaskans how well that worked. Not so bad for Exxon; less well for the people and the planet.

Panning Geithner's Plan

Original Link:

By Nomi Prins

Though the stock market may have lifted off on news of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner's purchase plan for toxic assets, don't be fooled by Wall Street's optimism. The plan is even worse than the one floated by Geithner's predecessor, Henry Paulson, last fall. At least Paulson wanted the government simply to buy the banking industry's junk outright—and spend less doing so.

Under Treasury's complicated Public-Private Partnership Investment Program, which was unveiled on Monday morning, Geithner wants to strike a deal with private investors who wouldn't touch these assets without serious incentives. The program will essentially give investors between $500 billion and $1 trillion dollars—at this point, what difference does half a trill make?—of spending money to go shopping for the bad assets that banks are dying to get off their books. And the kicker? The White House says the private sector is doing us a favor.

In the rosiest scenario, the assets will have some value one day. In that case, the government will have entered the hedge and private equity fund prime brokerage business. That is, the business of lending money to private funds backed by small amounts of collateral that the funds themselves post. In this instance that collateral would consist of—you guessed it—toxic assets. Remember, it was all the leverage, or borrowing, in the system that created the current mess. Surely, someone in Washington must question how more leverage, on the back of the same toxic assets, makes sense. At any rate, if this strategy pays off, private investors would profit more than the government, or taxpayers, because they risked less capital to buy the assets in the first place.
But here's another possibility: The assets have little or no value, because they have no incoming cash or no buyers—otherwise known as the situation we're presently in. To this day, we don't even have any knowledge of what exactly these assets are. The government won't tell us because the banks won't tell the government. And if the assets zero out, the private investors will largely be covered. The taxpayers, of course, won't.

That plan is based on the assumption that private funds want to bother with any of this. One thing's certain, though: The sweeter the deal the government makes to entice investors to buy assets they'd otherwise have no interest in, the worse it is for taxpayers. That's the brand of capitalism that was at work before this crisis, and it seems to have survived the economic collapse intact.

Geithner told the Wall Street Journal last week, “Our judgment is that the best way to get through this is if we can work with the markets…We don't want the government to assume all the risk. We want the private sector to work with us.”

The private sector helped create and spread a toxic stew of derivatives. Yet Geithner's strategy to “fix” the financial system is to ask its riskiest, most opaque players—the companies that shirked the most in taxes and were led by the execs who made the most money during the build-up years—to buy the system's junky assets in order “to cleanse it.” And this will come after $350 billion of capital injections and trillions of dollars of Federal Reserve loans haven't fixed the problem.

On top of this, Geithner doesn't think investors who participate in his program should be subject to any restrictions. No executive pay caps, no nothing. Moreover, the toxic assets to be brokered under this plan will be selected by the players that have not been able to unload them so far. It's like going to a used car dealership and saying to the car salesman, “I've got $100,000 to buy whatever you have to sell me,” and expecting him to provide you with his most valuable inventory.

Of course, bank stocks rallied on this cheery news. The Dow perked up like a heroin addict about to get a fix. Why wouldn't banks welcome the chance to participate in a government-sponsored program to clean their polluted balance sheets, where their old clients, the same ones who wouldn't be caught dead purchasing these toxic assets, could be paid for participating?

This is how Christina Romer, chair of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, described the plan on Sunday night: “What we're talking about now are private firms that are kind of doing us a favor, right? Coming into this market to help us buy these toxic assets off banks' balance sheets." She added, "They are firms that are being the good guys here—coming into a market that hasn't existed to try and help us get toxic assets off banks' balance sheets."

Which good guys? The financial firms that had their profits taxed at 25 percent rather than at 35 percent, like the rest of us, and made oodles of money in 2006 and 2007 before their bad bets greased the way to an economic collapse? Or the ones that bet housing-related securities would fail, in a self-fulfilling manner?

I've never been a fan of any toxic asset purchase plan (nor of the capital injection through stock purchase plans). Randomly buying a bunch of heavily layered, heavily leveraged securities and expecting them to be profitable some day has never made sense to me, especially when nothing is being done to bolster the underlying collateral. The White House and Treasury Department are throwing money at the banking and finance industry, while simultaneously doing little about the loans and borrowers at the bottom of the crisis—not to mention the very risky and overleveraged structure of the banking system itself.

The administration is caught up in crafting big plans to solve the problems of big banks. Instead, it should be dissecting the system into transparent, quantifiable, and understandable parts—and then dealing with those elements that can and should be assisted. Geithner ought to jettison the too-big-to-fail nonsense and keep it simple: Break up the banks into their commercial and speculative parts, and separate the assets along similar lines. Let the speculative parts die, and tend to the rest. As it stands, the present solution—propping up the entire system in a complex, highly leveraged manner that depends on the kindness of the culprits that caused this mess—is a colossally expensive exercise in bipartisan stupidity.

Three Scenarios for the Geithner Plan

Original Link:

By Alan Schram

Three scenarios are possible for the new Geithner plan:

1. The toxic assets will attract only few bidders, while most investors decide they are not a good investment at any price, even with Treasury's inducements, since those asset are not just illiquid but actually hopeless.

2. The Geithner plan will attract only few banks, because they fear their assets will receive only very low bids, forcing banks to take further write downs and thus eroding their capital even more. This will tear the mask from the banks' balance sheets and spell their doom. Because of that risk, many banks may choose not to participate. This scenario also renders the plan ineffective.

3. The plan's participants buy most assets from the banks at prices that leave the banks solvent. In this case, the plan works well but would amount to effectively subsidizing the failing banks, transferring their losses and risk to the taxpayers via the Fed's balance sheet.

None of the above scenarios is very promising; none leads to a good denouement. And what bothers me most is that we bet our financial system and the economic recovery on this plan, hailed as a panacea. It is never a good idea to bet the house on any grand scheme. Any system as complex and reflexive as the US economy is by definition unpredictable, and nobody could be confident this plan will work. If it fails, shattering the high hopes of so many, the price of disappointment will be immense. We will be with our back to the wall, facing another wave of panic.

The very premise behind the plan is flawed. We insist on saving the banks, and refuse to admit most of them are impaired beyond hope. We prefer to sweep their problems under the carpet, but the day of reckoning is here and it is always better to deal with our problems than pretend they are not there. We can handle the truth, although we may not be able to postpone it much longer.

What we should do instead is have the Treasury offer to match the capital of new community banks to be formed by the private sector. Entrepreneurs will have strong incentive to launch these new banks because of the federal matching, which will double their capital overnight. These new banks, unburdened by past mistakes, will have clean balance sheets and will be eager to lend, replacing the old failing banks and rejuvenating the credit system. Because most banks operate with loans at least ten times their equity capital, the amount of new credit will be at least 20 times the capital allocated by the government, so the multiplier effect will be very substantial.

And the banks that engaged in wretched excess and can't survive without federal funding do not deserve our help.

Geithner's plan isn't money in the bank

Original Link:,0,1446613.story

By Simon Johnson and James Kwak

There are reasons to be concerned about the Treasury secretary's proposal to clean up the financial system's toxic assets.

Monday's proposal by Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner is the government's latest shot -- and perhaps its last clean shot -- at extricating up to a trillion dollars' worth of toxic assets from the financial system and making an economic recovery possible.

But will it work?

We believe the best mechanism for solving the banking-sector crisis is government-supervised bankruptcy, also known as receivership. However, the Obama administration has made it abundantly clear that it will not consider this option, except perhaps as a last resort.

Without receivership, financial institutions can't be forced to sell toxic assets unless they choose to, nor can they be forced to lower prices that are unreasonably high. The problem in the market today is that the prices demanded by the banks are much higher than the prices that private buyers (hedge funds, private equity firms, sovereign wealth funds) are willing to pay.

The government has no way to bring down the banks' minimum sale prices, especially without the threat of receivership. So the only option is to induce buyers to pay more than they think the assets are worth in today's generally risky climate, and the only way to do this is through subsidies.

The Geithner plan offers private investors incentives to participate. Those who put up funds will be eligible for government-guaranteed loans to purchase larger shares of the toxic assets. Because these loans do not have to be paid back, investors cannot lose more than the money they invested, even if the value of the assets plummets. At the same time, there is no limit on the amount they can make if things turn out well.

There are three reasons for concern.

First, the subsidy may not be sweet enough to close the deal. According to one analysis, a specific mortgage-backed security was held on a bank's books at 97 cents, while its market price was about 38 cents. Even if you limit the buyer's potential loss to the capital he put in, it's unlikely he will raise his bid from 38 cents to anything near 97 cents.

Second, there is a "lemons" problem, also known as adverse selection. Even with a reasonable degree of disclosure, the selling banks will still know more about their assets than the buyers. The banks will be trying to dump their most toxic assets (their lemons); the buyers, fearing exactly this behavior, will reduce all their bids accordingly. This will make it harder for buyers and sellers to meet.

Third, there are political pressures, which have multiplied recently. For this plan to succeed, it has to offer private investors both upfront subsidies (cheap loans) and the long-term prospect of high returns. Both of these will be broadly unpopular with the public, especially given general attitudes toward hedge funds and private equity firms. Any attempt to limit the upside for the private sector has, apparently, been vetoed by potential investors. And that will make it look and feel like a taxpayer shakedown.

Public outcry against the American International Group bonuses (and the funneling of bailout money to AIG's counter-parties) was justly deserved. But it has changed the political landscape. The administration had already tied one of its hands by ruling out bankruptcy, even as a potential threat. Its other hand has since been tied by the blunders over AIG, which have ruled out in advance any plan that is too obviously a subsidy to banks or to private investors and have reduced the chances of getting new money from Congress.

Those two constraints dictated the anemic plan Geithner proposed: enough of a subsidy to raise public suspicion but not enough to guarantee that private investors will buy in or that the market for toxic assets will function smoothly. And while we're waiting to see whether banks actually get rid of their toxic assets, the economy will continue to deteriorate.

The plan could work -- but only if the banks agree to sell at reasonable prices. If it doesn't work, we'll need to come up with another approach, either one that is even friendlier to banks or one that confronts them head-on. Banks in this country have become too big economically and too powerful politically. Going forward, we have to fix this. We simply cannot afford to have another problem of this magnitude.

Simon Johnson is a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management and a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. James Kwak is a student at Yale Law School. They are co-founders of, which tracks the global economic crisis.

Making Sense Of The Geithner Plan

Original Link:

For those of you who watched Obama’s press conference last night (liveblogged here), you may have noticed a conspicuously untouched topic: the administration’s new bank bailout plan. The President did touch on it briefly during his opening remarks, but not a single reporter asked a question about the plan.

This was weird since this plan is, I think, far more controversial than the proposed budget. Josh Marshall at TPM thinks it “means that most of the reporters think that issue is largely behind us now unless…the market or any clear economic realities say otherwise. For better or worse.”

Economists don’t feel the same way.

Before getting to their reactions, it’s important to understand what the Geithner plan is trying to accomplish. In short, it is attempting to take the ‘toxic’ real-estate assets off of the banks’ balance sheets, allowing them to become comfortably solvent and able to function normally (i.e. loan money). [Note: when I write banks, I mean that broadly, encompassing bank/investment firm conglomerates like AIG]. The issue with these assets is that we don’t really know what they’re worth. One way of dealing with that is through nationalization and splitting the banks into good and bad parts, reprivatizing the “good bank” quickly and slowly selling off the assets in the “bad bank.” (See my previous post here for more on nationalization).

Tim Geithner has decided on another path: allowing private investors (e.g. hedge funds, mutual funds, pension funds) to value the assets by buying them at auction, trusting the markets to properly price them.

This is being called the “Public Private Partnership Investment Program.” Public-private means that the government will be creating incentives for the private industry to buy up these toxic assets by handing out a lot of non-recourse loans (loans only secured by the collateral - meaning that if the toxic real-estate assets purchased lose value, the government/taxpayers lose money). Sometimes, the government (through the FDIC) will loan up to 85% of the auction price with the Treasury than matching the private industry dollar for dollar for the remaining 15%.

To help make sense of this, here’s a sample investment scheme provided by the Treasury:

Sample Investment Under the Legacy Loans Program

Step 1: If a bank has a pool of residential mortgages with $100 face value that it is seeking to divest, the bank would approach the FDIC.
Step 2: The FDIC would determine, according to the above process, that they would be willing to leverage the pool at a 6-to-1 debt-to-equity ratio.
Step 3: The pool would then be auctioned by the FDIC, with several private sector bidders submitting bids. The highest bid from the private sector – in this example, $84 – would be the winner and would form a Public-Private Investment Fund to purchase the pool of mortgages.
Step 4: Of this $84 purchase price, the FDIC would provide guarantees for $72 of financing, leaving $12 of equity.
Step 5: The Treasury would then provide 50% of the equity funding required on a side-by-side basis with the investor. In this example, Treasury would invest approximately $6, with the private investor contributing $6.
Step 6: The private investor would then manage the servicing of the asset pool and the timing of its disposition on an ongoing basis – using asset managers approved and subject to oversight by the FDIC.

The government is essentially assuming much of the risk - if the assets turn out to be worth more than their purchase price, everyone wins (banks, investors, and taxpayers). But if they turn out to be worth less? The banks still win because they got the toxic assets off their balance sheets, private investors might lose a little bit ($6 in the above example), and the taxpayers get rocked by huge losses.

Here’s a very sensible explanation by an economics blogger named “nemo”:

Let’s flesh [out the above Treasury example] by repeating it 100 times. So say a bank has 100 of these $100 loan pools. And just by way of example, suppose half of them are actually worth $100 and half of them are actually worth zero, and nobody knows which are which. (These numbers are made up but the principle is sound. Nobody knows what the assets are really worth because it depends on future events, like who actually defaults on their mortgages.)

Thus, on average the pools are worth $50 each and the true value of all 100 pools is $5000.

The FDIC provides 6:1 leverage to purchase each pool, and some investor (e.g., a private equity firm) takes them up on it, bidding $84 apiece. Between the FDIC leverage and the Treasury matching funds, the private equity firm thus offers $8400 for all 100 pools but only puts in $600 of its own money.

Half of the pools wind up worthless, so the investor loses $300 total on those. But the other half wind up worth $100 each for a $16 profit. $16 times 50 pools equals $800 total profit which is split 1:1 with the Treasury. So the investor gains $400 on these winning pools. A $400 gain plus a $300 loss equals a $100 net gain, so the investor risked $600 to make $100, a tidy 16.7% return.

The bank unloaded assets worth $5000 for $8400. So the private investor gained $100, the Treasury gained $100, and the bank gained $3400. Somebody must therefore have lost $3600…

…and that would be the FDIC, who was so foolish as to offer 6:1 leverage to purchase assets with a 50% chance of being worthless. But no worries. As long as the FDIC has more expertise in evaluating the risk of toxic assets than the entire private equity and banking worlds combined, there is no way they could be taken to the cleaners like this. What could possibly go wrong?

Sounds scary, right? That’s because it is. The real danger here is that Geithner and the Obama administration are making the wrong guess about these assets. There are basically two possibilities. One is that we have a confidence problem in the markets, pushing down the value of the toxic assets through inflated fears of defaulting borrowers. If this is the case, the Geithner plan should work well, because it would become clear that the assets are actually good and the government would reap the benefits.

The other possibility is that the value of these assets is going down because there was a huge real-estate bubble (there was) and will settle even lower as more defaults hit home. If this is the case, the taxpayers will lose a lot of money.

Another serious issue is that this plan will create incentives for investors to overbid what they believe the value to be because of the large government subsidy coming their way. Private firms can still make good expected profits by paying more for the loans than they would under an unsubsidized purchase. Paul Krugman has more on this here.

So what do economists think? Many hate it (Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz says the plan “amounts to robbery of the American people”), some think it’s ok but is only a stop-gap measure on the road to later nationalization (NYU’s Nouriel Roubini and Matthew Richardson say “Secretary Timothy Geithner’s new toxic asset plan is a serious step in the right direction…”), and a couple think it’s a winning plan.

Their beliefs mostly rest on their assumptions about why the assets have lost so much value already (confidence issues vs. bubble burst), but even most of those who support it still think we’re going to end up nationalizing the banks. Some say that this a political move designed to prime the pump for a later nationalization - I hope they’re right, because heavily subsidizing private investors, creating huge moral hazard issues, and putting taxpayers at risk of big losses (without transparency, by the way, since Geithner’s plan doesn’t need approval by Congress) is unpalatable as a long-term solution.

Even if it works, the too-big-to-fail banks will still have been bailed out without any real punishment or restructuring. Will we really have the political capital/energy/desire to make sure this doesn’t happen again soon?